Three years after Canada opened its doors — and heart — to almost 60,000 Syrian refugees, Yaseen Alshehadt has a job he loves, his wife is learning English and their children are getting “the world’s best education.”
He’s living the classic immigrant’s dream.
Although settling in a new country can be difficult, Syrian newcomers who were sponsored by the federal government and community groups are slowly setting down roots in their adopted country, according to a new survey by COSTI, the agency tasked by Ottawa to settle government-sponsored Syrians in the GTA. The survey found many are thriving, with a third having found jobs and some 87 per cent reporting they feel happy.
“I can speak English now and have a job. My kids are in school. We feel 80 per cent Canadian,” said Alshehadt, 44, whose family fled Daraa in 2011 when the Syrian civil war broke out. They spent five years in Jordan before coming to Canada in January 2016 under a government sponsorship.
“We are so proud of Canada and want to make Canada proud of us, but we need some time to grow.”
The COSTI survey of government-assisted Syrians in Greater Toronto found they are faring better than immigrant service providers would have expected.
“As a settlement sector practitioner who has been working at this for 30 years, I believe this particular group, which is (so early) into their settlement, is ahead of the integration process,” said Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI.
“Half have had paid employment and many are still committed to their language training. They have made friends with non-Syrians and are not just retreated to their own community, which slows down their integration. These are all very good signs.”
Millions of Syrians have fled their homeland since the start of the bloody civil war that has left more than 350,000 people dead. Since November 2015, Canada has welcomed 58,650 Syrian refugees, about half sponsored by the Canadian government and others sponsored by community groups who came together in response to the massive humanitarian crisis.
The integration of government-assisted Syrians has always been more difficult because this group faces greater barriers due to lower education, poorer English and larger households. A previous study by the immigration department found a higher proportion of government-assisted refugees relied on food banks and were unemployed compared to their privately-sponsored peers, who have a social support network to ease their integration and settlement.
In the fall, COSTI interviewed 351 families — about 80 per cent of the Syrian refugeesit has assisted. They were asked about their language acquisition, employment, housing, health, children’s education and civic engagement. Participants responded to 61 questions in Arabic. The surveyed households represented some 1,755 Syrian adults and children.
Among the findings:
• 33 per cent of the heads of households are employed, up from 12 per cent in a similar survey done a year after their arrival. Previous research found that six out of 10 government-supported refugees were employed after five years.
• 63 per cent of adults are enrolled in English classes, down from 86 per cent in the previous survey. Many quit after they felt their language skills had improved and that they were ready to work full-time.
• 21 per cent have moved from their first homes in Canada, with most wanting to be closer to friends, and others requiring a bigger unit or less expensive housing.
• 87.3 per cent reported that their family feels happy or very happy in Canada, but 9.4 per cent expressed sadness while 3.4 per cent said they feel depressed, with many citing family separation as the cause.
• 92 per cent of children participate in sports or after-school activities. About 25 per cent are involved in soccer, 35 per cent in swimming, 10 per cent in hockey, football or gymnastics and 30 per cent in other activities.
• 100 per cent said they plan to become Canadian citizens in the future.
An experienced chef, Alshehadt, the self-proclaimed “shawarma master,” began working on the serving-line at Adonis, a retail grocery chain, shortly after his family moved to Mississauga in the spring of 2016 from temporary shelter at the Toronto Plaza Hotel. He worked part-time while studying English during the day.
When the one-year government financial support ran out, the family was forced to go on social assistance for about a year while Alshehadt continued to work and improve his English as his wife, Iklhas, stayed home to look after their five kids — a boy and four girls, all under 11.
After the stint at Adonis, Alshehadt worked at two restaurants, including one where he helped develop the menu and train its franchised cooking staff. Earlier this year, he quit his English class and began working full-time, recently landing a job as the manager of a shawarma restaurant in Oakville.
“I finished at level-4 in my English. The classes are good for the grammar and basic, but I needed to go out and practise my English through work,” said Alshehadt, who should make just short of $60,000 a year in his new job.
“We are all happy being here. We all feel safe. We come here for our children and we know they will have a future here.”
Alshehadt said his children are enrolled in sports and other after-school programs, interacting with other kids through soccer, dancing and swimming classes. He says the family loves socializing with their non-Syrian neighbours. His wife restarted English classes in September after they found a daycare space for their 18-month-old Canadian-born daughter, Noorseen.
“The Middle East is a very closed society. In Canada, I get to know how big the world is and I love meeting people with different experience. We meet people from other religions and learn from each other. Everyone lives in peace,” explained Alshehadt, whose family attends a mosque in Mississauga.
“This still feels like a dream. I tell my children they have to work hard and give back to Canada. Everything is possible here. Even if they want to become the prime minister, they can.”
While his immediate goal is to help his family and his wife’s family — still living in limbo in the Middle East — be sponsored to Canada, Alshehadt said he hopes to save enough money and one day open a fusion shawarma restaurant as a tribute to Canada.